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If you’re so smart, let’s see you name a phone

There’s an old joke about teachers that’s really more apt when applied to commenters: Those who can, do; those who can’t, comment.

In the case of the wireless industry, everyone is an expert at designing phones. Pricing phones. Selling phones. And, of course, naming phones. After all, who among us did not realize that a product which married an iPod and cellphone should naturally be called an iPhone. Or that shrinking down desktop Windows gets you a Windows Phone (Seven Series). Yes, naming a phone is pretty easy.

But could you name five phones? How about a whole lineup? Or multiple lines straddling multiple markets and multiple model years? Judging by the recent reaction to two likely, future Nokia brandings, it would seem that your average consumer could come up with better, more internally consistent monikers than the professional marketers and researchers who literally do this for a living. Why would you name a product the Nokia Lumia 2520 when Nokia Sirius sounds better? Why tack confusing numbers onto these brandings at all, when names are easier to remember? How can the Samsungs, BlackBerries, and Nokias of the world keep making these same mistakes over and over and over again?

The truth is, it’s very difficult to come up with a product name — a name that not only satisfies you and your group of friends, but one that also satisfies your neighbor, your coworker, your babysitter, and their friends and family, all without proving offensive in any one of dozens of languages and twice as many cultures. Branding is a mix of art and science, and trying to apply it across a lineup of products as deep and diverse as a family of cellphones is a daunting task that takes a team of experts from a multitude of disciplines (and round after round of focus grouping).

Let’s use Nokia as an example. Even with an annual output that has contracted from peak production, the proud Finnish manufacturer pushes out at least half-a-dozen smartphones per year, along with perhaps twice as many feature phones, and more than a handful of entry level, essential-feature handsets for developing markets. Giving each of these disparate devices its own word-based retail name would be a nightmare. How does a Nokia Widget differ from a Nokia Wodget? Is this year’s Widget better, worse, or not comparable at all to last year’s Wadget? Across a lineup of more than five or ten phones, it’s just not feasible to drop numeric branding elements completely. We need 1520s for quick, easy comparison against 1020s, even if a 929 on one operator is not really much worse than a 1020 on another. The fact is, carriers and OEMs do a little dance to settle on these retail names, and depending on where the balance of power lies, we’re bound to find inconsistency within, and certainly across, different markets.

There was once a time when all phones were given heavily alpha-numeric model names, and when it comes to a company like Samsung, the reasoning is quite clear. Samsung pushes out dozens of handsets around the world each year, and since there is little we can discern about the differences between a Galaxy Grand, a Galaxy Trend, and a Galaxy Core on name alone, the South Korean OEM has wisely maintained a highly-structured, hierarchical SKU naming convention as well. You’ll always know that SGH- SPH- and SCH- prepended model numbers are destined for GSM (AT&T/T-Mobile), PCS (Sprint), and CDMA (Verizon) networks domestically (and respectively). With BlackBerry, the numbers used to clue you into the family and recency of the device in question, while LG and Sony use a mix of names and alphanumeric brandings, depending on feature-tier of the particular device.

Just remember, as much as you would like a Nokia EOS, an HTC Zara, or a Samsung J Active, none of these phones exist in a vacuum — they are all part of deep lineups whose members’ names must meet a plethora of criteria, which for the most part, precludes any of the hypothetical retail brandings you’re just positive would play better than BlackBerry Q10, HTC One VX, or Nokia Asha 207.

Evan Nelson Blass, better known by his pen name @evleaks, is an American writer, editor, and phone leaker.

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